★★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Thomas Balmes took Alain Chabat’s idea of filming babies from four different corners of the world and documenting their journey from inside the womb up until they learned how to walk: Ponijao from Namibia, Bayar from Mongolia, Mari from Japan and Hattie from the United States. What I first noticed about this impressive documentary was its lack of narration. Balmes’ decision to not explain why parents were doing or not doing certain things for their children made us active participants because we had to come up with our own conclusions. The picture having no subtitles to translate the foreign languages was quite bold because then we feel like the child in its very early years–unable to discern what the parents were saying exactly so we rely on the tones of their voices to guess what kind of expression they wanted to portray toward their child. While the movie was undoubtedly cute (I love the scenes when the children would interact with animals, especially when Bayar was petting his cat), it went far beyond, “Aww, how cute!” Since I had a bit of experience studying child development and psychology, it was so much fun applying what I learned toward something I’m actually seeing. We literally see these children grow before our eyes as they change from being entertained solely by toys (or random things in the dirt if they didn’t have any toys) that made strange noises, to learning via simple imitation, to having a sense of self when they realized that their bodies can have a direct effect onto the world. We even had a chance to observe how the children attempted to talk via babbling and say their first word. Furthermore, the film wasn’t just about the babies. Secondary to the subjects were the parents’ child-rearing practices. Since I live in America, I’m used to seeing parents coddling their babies as often as they could. So, initially, I found it surprising that parents in Africa and Mongolia allow, if not highly encourage, to let their child roam in the dirt and explore his and her surroundings. They even let animals like goats, dogs and chickens get near their babies without worry. I guess what the director wanted to tell us was the fact that babies have high resilience physically and psychologically. They have the need to explore the world and experience a spectrum of emotions which includes pain, frustration and anger. What Balmes managed to capture on film was magic. I admired the way it was able to condense over a year of life into a breezy eighty minutes yet successfully highlight the most important elements.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Affliction” is a haunting film about a man (Nick Nolte) who was abused by his father (James Coburn) as a child and the ramifications of such negative parenting. I couldn’t help but watch this picture in a psychological perspective because it’s very character-driven. This is one of Nolte’s strongest film acting-wise because right from the moment he appeared on screen, I could discern that there was seriously something wrong with him. Though he doesn’t say a lot during the first few minutes, his facial expressions and body language made me reach to a hypothesis that he internalizes all his troubles. Surely enough, Paul Schrader, the director, brilliantly uses narration and grainy flashback sequences about what Nolte’s character and his brother (Willem Dafoe) have experiences under their father’s roof. I felt so bad for Nolte’s character because he lacks a coping mechanism (or even basic but effective problem-solving strategies) when a problem is in front of him. All he knows is internalization because his father taught him that in order for him to be a man (and not a sissy), he must not wear emotion on his sleeves. His internal conflict regarding his past was worsened by his decaying relationship with his ex-wife and daughter. Nolte becomes so determined to be the complete opposite of his father to the point where he couldn’t see that his daughter is afraid of his presence. He tries way too hard to impress her that he becomes this suffocating figure, who not only puts his daughter under a microscope, but also reacts so aggressively when the daughter doesn’t express enough gratitude or when she claims that she “wants to go home.” I also thought that his tendency to the want to solve mysteries when there’s no mystery to be solved was fascinating. The way I saw it was he couldn’t solve his own inner problems so he tries to look for solutions for things that have nothing to do with him. He needs to constantly compensate for his lack of internal locus of control to the point where he starts drowning in his own problems and his friends start leaving him. That downward spiral was aided by the eventual constant presence of his abusive father; I was deeply affected by scenes when the father would literally put Nolte down some more when Nolte was already feeling like less than nothing. I also thought the story was smart because Dafoe’s character, despite the abuse, was well-adjusted. It offers an alternative argument: child-rearing is not the only factor to blame. Based on Russell Banks’ novel, “Affliction” is a depressing but powerful picture because it’s very multi-layered in its portrayal of the characters and the elements that keep the story together.
Beautiful Ohio (2006)
★ / ★★★★
Chad Lowe’s directoral debut is rather difficult to get through because it doesn’t rise above the stereotypes regarding depressing suburban drama. William Hurt and Rita Wilson have two sons: David Call, a certified genius in mathematics, and Brett Davern, who is rather ordinary. Michelle Trachtenberg complicates the storyline by filling in the role as the not-so-girl-next-door who the two brothers happen to be attracted to. The first part of the film is rather interesting because it explores the jealously between the two brothers–mainly Davern struggling to live in his big brother’s shadow versus stepping out of it. I could relate to the two brothers because they pretty much have nothing in common except for their unconventional parents. Things quickly went downhill from there because the dialogue mostly consisted of the characters discussing theories, influential musicians and citing quotes from renowned individuals. Their pretentiousness created this wall between me and the characters. Therefore, when something dramatic happens to a particular character or a revelation occurs, I found myself not caring. I didn’t find anything particularly profound that drove the story forward either. Lowe really needed something above the whole parents-not-really-caring-about-their-children idea because it’s all been done before by better films. Davern reminded me of Emile Hirsch in “Imaginary Heroes,” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but without the nuances of pain and complexity. If Lowe had explored the common theme of characters not understanding each other (literally through language or emotionally) in a more meaningful and not a heavy-handed manner, this picture would’ve worked. The revelation about a certain character in the end felt out of place. Don’t waste your time with this one.
Bear Cub (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I didn’t expect to love this movie because of its coy title and familiar plot summary but the way it told the story with such intelligence and emotion is impressive. This Spanish gay-themed but not gay-centered film, written and directed by Miguel Albaladejo, focuses on José Luis García Pérez and the way he takes care of his nephew (David Castillo) when his mother decides to go to India. Each of the character is memorable because they are full of surprises. For instance, I couldn’t help but laugh and have a smile on my face afterwards when the hippie mother revealed that she thinks her son is gay and it’s wonderful/a gift. She has a certain energy and spunk which made me think of my own mother. Pérez may be gay and lives an openly gay lifestyle but that’s not even half of who he really is. He’s a great father-figure but he just doesn’t know it because he’s too preoccupied asking himself what would be best for his nephew. As for Castillo, he was actually given a character to portray, a character that helps to drive the story forward. As the film went on and we get to meet other characters such as the grandmother (Empar Ferrer), the story gets that much more interesting and serious. Toward the end of the film, some revelations occured and I couldn’t help but gasp because I didn’t see such twists coming. This gem of a Spanish film knows how to tell a simple but extremely layered story with colorful characters that doesn’t result to stereotypes. It manages to use its characters in such a way that if a particular character didn’t exist, the story would be that much weaker. I can only wish more American films are like this because it puts the characters’ motivations on the foreground and doesn’t judge their background. It really does make a difference when it comes to overall feel of the picture. Definitely check this one out if one is remotely interested.